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THOSE WHO DRAW THE UGLY LINE

On being asked to comment on the woman who was assaulted and raped by one of the men who had given her a lift from a nightclub on Park Street, Madan Mitra, the state sports minister, had this to say — “The woman has been separated from her husband for a long time. What was she doing there so late at night?” The depraved logic behind Mitra’s argument works on twin assumptions: first, a nightclub is an unsafe place for chaste women; second, the victim’s failed marriage and her decision to visit, and drink, at a nightclub could be reason enough for her to be subjected to such violence. Mitra’s argument reflects a medieval mindset, one which refuses to acknowledge that adult women, just like men, have the right to pursue their own course of action.

Such comments are not unheard of in India. Public servants, mostly men, usually adopt a three-pronged strategy when faced with such situations. First, they cast aspersions on the victim’s character, arguing, for instance, that a failed marriage is an indicator of a woman’s loose morals. Second, they blame the victims for the violence that is directed at them. The DGP of Andhra Pradesh, V.D. Reddy, recently stated that women who dress provocatively are responsible for the surge in crimes such as rape. This is yet another instance of a representative of the State, in blatant violation of norms, vilifying women to pin the badge of blame on them. Finally, there is the refusal to acknowledge the veracity of such inhuman acts. This is a weapon whose utility Mamata Banerjee has come to honour unashamedly. After the incident in Park Street and, more recently, the rape in Ketugram, she declared that the events had been staged to malign the administration. The police commissioner, like a pliant puppet, echoed Banerjee even though the subsequent investigation showed that the chief minister’s allegations were baseless. Neither of them — public servants both — has apologized to the victim or to the people. Since India’s moral compass and institutions are guided by a code of regressive values, people’s representatives are able to escape censure for their insensitive remarks. Often they are also lauded for their twisted opinions. Incidentally, a number of women’s organizations sprang to Reddy’s defence after he was criticized by the home minister.

Perhaps such uncritical acceptance encourages men like Reddy to take on the task of lecturing women with impunity. When the lessons go unheeded, at times with disastrous consequences for the woman, he can always count on leaders like Mitra to heap humiliation on the victim for her alleged transgressions. And women, apparently, need to be taught quite a few lessons. Girl students and their teachers need to be tutored in the ways of dressing in schools and colleges. Working women need to be ordered not to feel outraged after being refused a drink at a restaurant. Homemakers, at times trapped in violent and unhappy marriages, also have to be counselled on the sanctity of the union and the risks that lace freedom of choice. As always, the greatest derision is reserved for women who have the courage to challenge these edicts, raising the fearful possibility of the redistribution of respectability, honour and rights along more equitable lines between men and women.

But not all women are as pliant as Bengal’s police commissioner. In a television interview, the victim — a former professional and a mother of two — revealed that she would not stop visiting nightclubs, and that the State did not have the right to decide what is and is not right for her. Her defence of women involved in escort services — it had been suggested in some official quarters that she was involved in such a profession— reflected a candour and dignity that were sorely missing in the reaction of the chief minister.

It is wrong to believe that brave women like her are alone in their battle. Ketugram, seething with anger against the chief minister’s allegation, is standing by the victim. Considerable support and admiration have also been expressed for both the victim and the woman police officer, who led the investigation into the Park Street incident. The transformation of women from hapless victims or alleged abettors of violence into figures of heroic resistance in the public eye should worry Banerjee and Mitra alike. ‘Change’, they undoubtedly know, can have fatal political implications.